One divide in post-1950, maybe post-1960, American poetry could be said to grow out of the claims of the eye. Poetry has, at least since the advent of silent reading, depended in some measure on the play of the visual against the auditory, the page against the recitation, the eye against the ear. With Modernism, the eye took on proportionally greater weight in how poets thought about the form of poetry, and the sense of what the look of poetry could mean and be was simultaneously enlarged, eventually yielding the experiments of Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, Duncan, and Creeley. Oftentimes, champions of these poets insist that the new work being asked of the eye has direct bearing on the ear.
Another divide in post-1950, maybe post-1960, American poetry has its origins in the unity of occasion. Pound is crucial here once more. Poetry has always sought to balance the local and the general, speaking both to the circumstances, imagined or real, of the utterance, as well as finding in those circumstances a glimpse of something that is not bound to that time and place. But unity of occasion underwrote, and provided foundation , for the broader, less geographically specific or historically immediate, vistas of verse; even the sublimity of Shelley’s high style, which represents an extreme, is tied to a circumstance. Pound’s Cantos do something else: the unity is the poetry, which holds within its structure, a number of occasions which are asked, by arrangement, to speak to one another, but which are not, as allusions or references or digressions, bound by a larger occasion. (By contrast, Eliot’s Waste Land arranges a sequence of occasions like acts in a drama—even if there is no clear plot, there is a crisis, death v. generation, propelling them forward—and there are, in each act, voices and subjects which anchor the poem; in Pound’s poem, the occasions themselves, each a strip in the collage, represent civilizations, traditions, places, cities, which do not depend on subjects or actors). Once again, the inheritors of Pound’s precedent are Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan, and maybe Bunting (who gives greater weight to the ear than to the eye). Oftentimes, champions of these poems insist upon “technique” and “craft,” perhaps because it is being asked to do so much work in unifying the poetry.
The poetry of the some poets associated with the 1960s Black Arts Movement might be situated against these formal poetic divides. In particular, the poetry of Sonia Sanchez can be appreciated at their juncture. For Sanchez, the unity of a poem’s occasion was very much affirmed, but the occasion itself was a fractured civic life, sometimes seeking a center, sometimes resisting from the margins, and sometimes affirming a new center. In the case of the former divide, Sanchez joins in asserting the claims of the eye in new ways, sometimes against and above those of the ear, but at the same time asserts the claims of the ear in a new way, by way of a spoken voice suited to both private experience and (distinctly Black) public discourse and critique.
This is a remarkable poem, deploying demotic register as well as a pubic rhetoric, and setting them in tension with one another, suggesting the failure of the latter to accommodate the needs of the other and all it represents, but also setting them in tension with the formal properties of the poem, above all its system of lineation and punctuation on the page. The poem’s visual marks both protest against the language and allow it to bear new significance.For instance, “all that is | impt in them | selves” allows “impt” to be shorthand for both “important” and “impotent.” And the isolation of “like” in “Like | i mean” and “like who’s gonna” and “like. Man” and “like. this. is an S O S” places various simultaneous pressures on the word.
The first instance, “Like” on a single word can be read as a paraphrase of what came before, or else as an instance, an example, of “that rhetoric,” acknowledging the nearness against the distancing effect of the word “that.” It could also be announcing that the poem is an example not of the rhetoric, but of the “something” that it means. This last possibility is borne out by the repetition, simultaneously stuttering and unsure and insistent and affirming, of “i mean,” which is asked to stand both in relation to what follows and as a sort of choral refrain, self-sufficiently announcing that the “I” of the poem does mean, means something in herself.
The second “like” of “like who’s gonna” mirrors and, as a mirror, inverts the first: “like| i mean| who’s gonna take” becomes “i mean | like who’s gonna | take all the young/long/haired.” The difference is auditory as well as visual, with Sanchez asking for different emphases of sound as well as stress. In “I mean| like who’s,” a further ambiguity is opened up: she means in the same was as whoever is going to take… But the main difference strikes the ear, with the second being a older affirmation, the “like” not subordinating “I mean,” but being subordinated to “I mean,” so that the “like” is held to be precisely the sort of thing she means, rather than suggesting, as one possibility, that the “I mean” is itself an approximation (“like I mean”) of what has already been said. The poem, in other words, gains strength in its voice, and it is easy to miss, for me at least, how this poem, and Sanchez’ other poems contain not only a variety of registers, but also a probing inwardness that evolves along with the poem. ( I should mention here also that the “take” of these lines rhymes meaningfully with the “make” of the first line—that “make” is the making of poetry, and these “takes” are the taking that is another function of poetry as Sanchez sees it: a re-appropriating, a re-claiming of language. The visual techniques are tools of such re-claiming.)
In the third “like,” we hear first and foremost the bracing wake-up call, deadpan return to reality of “like man,” but also the possibility that the “like” carries from what has come before: either “towards the enemy who is like man” [but not man, being inhuman], or else, ignoring the parentheses: “and we know who the enemy is like.” The full-stop after “like” supports these latter two possibilities. But the full-stop also sustains the dead-pan beat after “like” in the wake-up call, “like. Man.”
The final “like” is coupled with “this,” and disconnected from “this” by a substantial space on the page, so that it stands alone also, albeit sharing a line. After the sequence of parentheses, whose rounded brackets set-apart, hold at abeyance, and reject what has been offered, the “like” can carry on from what has come before, so that it carries a note of pride: who is going to do it like this? But what is beautiful about the line is how that note of pride, as if the poem (or the longer Poem of Sanchez’ career) were itself a way of making that rhetoric mean something, taking it up into itself, dissolves into the helplessness of the line, without a clear point of transition between them (despite the points of the full-stops that punctuate the line). It matters that the line contains all at once “like” and “this” and “is an S.O.S” because we should not be asked to find when and where the question beginning “who’s gonna” becomes a cry for help, in so far as it always was; and it matters that the three phrases be held apart by additional spaces to dramatize that transition, to suggest the voice faltering and overcoming the full-stops, and to suggest that something is missing from the line, something that might make sense of how this is how the question is being resolved. Of course, it’s the massive vagueness of “this” (which stands in sharp contrast to the “that” of the opening’s “that beautiful blk/rhetoric”) that allows for the scope of possibilities: is the “this” the question being asked, the poem itself, something smaller or larger still?
The ending of the poem is tremendous in part because it reveals that what has been a poem about public rhetoric and also a poem propelled by an outward-facing rhetorical set of questions is in fact in need of a reply, without an adequate audience; what seemed to be questions that boldly empowered others to stand up, or that announced the poet herself was standing up to take on the challenge of making the rhetoric mean something, we are left with a helplessness, the questions signaling both the desperate need for an answer and the thought that the poem is a message in a bottle, without a clear recipient. The slash in “Some/one” suggests that the poem is calling some, not all; that it seeks a single savior of sorts; and, what is characteristic of Sanchez’ slashes in this poem and elsewhere in the early work at least, that the unity of “someone” can itself not be maintained; that it can be invoked only as its internal stress, threatening to break it apart, is also recognized (Elsewhere in this poem, we have the pun of “shit” on the “chit” of “chitterlings”; the “cad” and “ill” in “cadillacs”):the poem asks for someone, but also recognizes that someone is not there, wholly or whole. Maybe that in turn is because no someone to whom this poem could be addressed could be wholly someone, but must be reduced (by the forces in parentheses). “Pleasereplysoon” is crushed into a single phrase furtively, as if speed were of the essence, as if this were a single thought, a phrase that unites into a word as a commonplace valediction might, or as if the distinctness of the words does not matter, their individual senses irrelevant to the occasion and its desperation.
The slash is the great visual feature of this and other early Sanchez poems. It establishes new relations within and between words; above I’ve suggested the fracturing effect, and it also (at the same time as fracturing sometimes) unites unnaturally (that it is not a hyphen is crucial), suggesting equivalence, and also allowing for ambiguities so that multiple meanings within a phrase can be sustained, as when she writes “hall/way of wite/America’s mind” where “way of wite” is given its own standing. The announcement of equivalents or alternatives is probably the most consistently important effect of the slash: “straight/revolutionary/lines” are lined up, with “revolutionary” a surprise, as if “straight” and “revolutionary” or “revolutionary” and “lines” could be thought substitutes. And when Sanchez writes “give our young |blk/people” she invites several possibilities at once: a uniting of “blk” and “people” in a single unit that is not compound, but that does not emerge as a single word; the suggestion that “blk” and “people” are a single unit suffering a fracture that nonetheless does not dissolve entirely; and finally the suggestion that “people” that she speaks of are “young blk,” which serves either as a specification or as assertion that “people” be considered as “young blk” rather than, as is usually the case with an ideological sleight of hand, “wite.”
Though Sanchez deploys the slash with any number of words, it is frequently attached to “blk” and “wite,” and also to “america” (which it sometimes breaks apart) and “people”: these words are the centers of her poetry’s concerns, but they are also the center of her discomfort with language. Here is “Memorial: 2. bobby hutton”:
The slashes are consistently attached to “blk,” each with different stress: “young/blks” suggests that when speaking of “dying young” in the country, one ought to be thinking or speaking primarily of Black Americans. “long/term/plan | for blk/people” acknowledges that, in the long term plan of destruction of Black revolutionaries by White America, “blk/people” are held as a single entity. But the lines can be read against that thought: they could be heard as acknowledging that the “long/term/plan” is “for” in the sense of “on behalf of,” with the plan not a planned opposition and elimination, but a plan by a series of black revolutionaries. On this reading, “blk/people” is united with aspiration. That doubleness is crucial to the poem, fending off total despair, without lessening its rage at injustice over time. The rage and despair meet and compound in “dead/blk/men” where the three words are placed as markers, none sufficient on its own, but together seizing on the subject of violence in America: it is one group, a single identity, but a single identity whose parts demand individual recognition: that they are dead, that they are Black, and that they are men, with the word “men” speaking not only to a shared gender, but to a common “humanity” as the word “people” suggests a political unit. Then, in the arc of the poem, “blk/martyr’s” elevates their deaths, but also dispenses with the rhetoric of martyrdom with an exasperated disgust: “we got enough” suggests how cheapening and cheap such rhetoric can become. In a poem about history, about the “now/time” and “ago/time,” both of which are, as the second half of each pairing states, simply “time,” the final collision of “white/yrs” is brutal: we would expect “shit/ | yrs of these| white/people,” with “white/people” in opposition to “black/people,” but the entire pair is transformed, so that the poem is not about the long term plan of white people so much as the long term plan of White history, within which “blk/people” struggle and resist, repeatedly. “it happen again” is both a continuation of the warning and plea (to whom?), “don’t let | it happen again,” but it is also, standing alone, a blank acknowledgement that it is happening again and that it does happen again and again, with the verb form “happen,” colloquial and demotic, accommodating both.
There is more to say about both of these poems–and though they seem to me distinctly good, they are also representative of how good Sanchez is, and how much that goodness depends on her sense for the ear and eye, balancing their claims simultaneously in lines that likewise balance judgments and feeling, public and private, angered grief and hard consolation, despair and hope.